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Column: Big crowd, win provide promise for Riverhounds SC ‘to build something bigger’

Steel Army celebrates a Riverhounds goal on Saturday at Highmark Stadium (photo by Ed Thompson)

On Saturday, everything fell into place for the Riverhounds SC, as they picked up a big home schedule opening win, 3-1, in an entertaining match beating expansion Hartford Athletic. But maybe even more importantly, they did it before a record crowd — giving plenty of folks something to talk about and potentially thirsting for more.

Highmark ‘originals’ Kerr and Angulo steal the show in Hounds 3-1 win (inc. player grades)

After the match, even Hounds coach Bob Lilley spent more time than usual in his post-game meet-up with the media to talk about the support his club received.

“I’m really excited what we’re starting to build here. I’m thankful and appreciative of those fans coming out,” Lilley said. “Hopefully we can keep them coming out, keep them excited about the team. I thought overall it was a great night for our organization.”

In the Highmark Stadium era (since 2013), the Hounds have seen some ups and downs with attendance numbers at home openers. The first game on April 13, 2013 was standing room only, recording 4,000 in attendance at the stadium which lists capacity at 3,500.

The following season’s home opener, also a memorable, high-scoring game vs Wilmington, a 4-3 loss, drew 3,507.

After the first three seasons, the bottom really fell out in 2016, which ironically followed a playoff season — and they were playing the defending league champion Rochester Rhinos led by Lilley,as only 1,106 came to watch the Hounds lose 1-0 on a pretty cold night.

Hounds Home Openers in Highmark Stadium Era
  • 2013 – 4,000
  • 2014 – 3,507
  • 2015 – 2,244
  • 2016 – 1,106
  • 2017 – 3,352
  • 2018 – 2,006
  • 2019 – 5,182

There have been plenty of good and bad excuses over the years: from bad weather to conflicts with Penguins, Pirates and other big things going on in and around the Three Rivers.

If enough people have something to get excited about, the fans will come.

Last year’s success — and momentum that carried over through this off season have clearly paid off.

“I thought tonight was as good of an atmosphere as I’ve seen in a long time. It’s very similar to the home playoffs last year. I think last year massively helped,” Kerr said on Saturday. “There is a lot of truth in people wanting to see a winning, successful team.”

In addition, we had a pretty full press box on Saturday.

Even the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette‘s Craig Meyer was on hand, and penned this Sunday feature for the area’s biggest daily newspaper.

Look, it’s not the first time the Post-Gazette (or other mainstream media) have covered the Hounds, but Craig’s piece certainly conveyed to its readers, many who possibly are reading about the Riverhounds for the first time, with a sense that this is a club is building something legitimate.

Some of the Hounds most faithful fans have longed for this type of coverage — and now is the time for the club and the die-hard fan base to build on this, and seize the momentum.

Looking back at the attendance challenge for the club, I’ve been writing about Riverhounds attendance (mostly woes) since 2013, and this isn’t the first time there’s a feeling that they’ve got a chance to build off the momentum from a big crowd.

In 2013, they had a fairly strong campaign, culminating with an overflow crowd to watch the Hounds take on Wigan Athletic FC in a July friendly.

In 2015, despite regular season attendance woes during a turn-around campaign, another standing-room crowd witnessed a U.S. Open Cup Fourth Round match vs D.C. United.

Overall, though, the team’s attendance average for each season since Highmark’s first has dropped and flat lined, hovering around 2,400-2,600 fans per game for the past six years.

Typically the trends for the Hounds will have early season promise (typically home opener), followed by bare crowds in late April and May. It’s the July 4th match that packs the one guaranteed sell-out. The early Spring and late Fall have been more challenging.

And the U.S. Open Cup matches, if played here, with not much advance ticket sale momentum, don’t do very well either.  Case in point, the Hounds hosted FC Cincinnati last May, and only 1,500 fans showed up. Of course, the rewards come if they could advance and host an MLS team.

Here are the attendance averages since 2013

  • 2013 – 3,273
  • 2014 – 2.791
  • 2015 – 2,630
  • 2016 – 2,494
  • 2017 – 2,639
  • 2018 – 2,401
  • 2019 – ?

Last season, despite the team’s success through the regular season, the numbers really didn’t pick-up. Heading into the 2018 campaign, the Hounds were under pressure too from USL Championship, and US Soccer’s Second Division club requirements of having a stadium with 5,000 seat minimum. Additional seats eventually came, but it wasn’t until the Hounds hosted its first ever playoff game at Highmark for the new stands to be installed on the East End of the Stadium.

And they came in the nick of time.  The playoff match attracted a record crowd of 5,189.

Takeaways From Historic Night: Great season, but Hounds are not there yet

It’s clear that this franchise has cleared a hurdle.

The Hounds finally had a home playoff match, and carried over momentum from a very successful season with a promising start now in 2019.

With the new stands and additional seating firmly entrenched, the Hounds will have to do everything they can to keep them full.

“We’ve worked hard since I’ve been here on the field. We need to move this franchise forward, and I feel we already have. But we’re nowhere near where we want to be. This has the opportunity to be even bigger than what we’re seeing now. We just have to keep doing our job on the field, off the field, and keep pushing that envelope,” Lilley added.

Two matches with the new stands have been played, and they’ve packed more than 5,000 fans into Highmark in each match.

Now comes the real test.

Can they sustain this?  Will they be able to get 5,000 fans for every game?

Only time will tell, but they’re off to a terrific start.


John Krysinsky has covered soccer and other sports for many years for various publications and media outlets. He is also author of 'Miracle on the Mon' -- a book about the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, which chronicles the club, particularly the early years of Highmark Stadium with the narrative leading up to and centered around a remarkable match that helped provide a spark for the franchise. John has covered sports for Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, DK Pittsburgh Sports, Pittsburgh Sports Report, has served as color commentator on Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC broadcasts, and worked with OPTA Stats and broadcast teams for US Open Cup and International Champions Cup matches held in the US. Krysinsky also served as the Head Men’s Soccer Coach at his alma mater, Point Park University, where he led the Pioneers to the first-ever winning seasons and playoff berths (1996-98); head coach of North Catholic boys (2007-08), associate head coach of Shady Side Academy boys (2009-2014).

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